• Published 5th Sep 2018
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The Golden Age of Apocalypse - Book I - BlueBastard



A Berylverse Story - The ponies investigate an ancient prophecy tied to Sombra's plan to destroy Equestria, all the while Sunset prepares for her coronation. But not all is as it seems when the mystery begins to imply a far darker truth of the past.

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Chapter 13 - The Mares Who Kicked The Changeling Nest

Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 13—The Mares Who Kicked The Changeling Nest

Following Heliodor’s lead, the two unicorns and batpony followed an otherwise hidden path—outlined only by a trail of blood that for a bird of prey like Heelee was day-glo neon—and soon arrived right outside the entrance to a long abandoned mine. Or once-abandoned, as the blood trail led right into the foreboding entrance, framed with rotting timbers.

“The Old Yeller Mine,” said Lockbox. “Named such for when it was still being used, there’s a weird type of metal here—ekheum— that actually directs echoes acoustically to the head of the mine here as well as deep within far to the back, so ponies could yell from deep in the mine and be heard distinctly by ponies at the front, and vice versa. But the vein dried up a few decades ago and it’s too dangerous to make into a tourist spot, so the town abandoned it. In retrospect, it should have been obvious this is where the hive was—it used to host a different hive years back and was avoided like the plague for that reason, but then the hive moved out without warning and it was left abandoned ever since. That migration is believed to be where Versa originated from.”

“Yeah, got my own little story, too,” commented Razz. “Way back in the early portion of my...drifter years, I was looking for shelter from the rain and found some old mine entrance, similar to this one but more centrally on the continent if you get my meaning. At the same time, some kind of commotion erupted from within and I see a bunch of pissed-off diamond dogs chasing a green and yellow dot. I saved the dot by using my magic to rip out the support beams, trapping the dogs behind the rubble. Heliodor’s been by my side ever since.”

“Aw, that’s touching,” said Amber, “but what about saving the ponies trapped in this mine?”

“Well, you’re going to go back to town and tell Skyracer to haul ass up here to give us support if we need it,” replied Razz with a smile.

“Yeah, just say it’s the Old Yeller Mine,” Lockbox told her. “Basically everypony in town knows it’s here, especially the local batponies. They’ve been trying to get municipal permission to turn the cave into new housing developments for years. Being a changeling hive again might complicate that matter, unless you have some pull with the Crown Environmental Agency.”

Amber scrunched her muzzle in annoyance. “Are you saying you only brought me along to play messenger mare?”

Razz nodded. “Yep, because try as you might it’s still painfully obvious you have a hangover from your binge drinking two nights ago. You’re more at risk of being a liability and it does your comrades no good if you end up captured with them—whereas being a courier will get those guards moving here faster while Lock and I get to work.”

“Not to sound like Skyracer, but it’s just the two of you!”

“Yes, just the Archmage of Dark Magic and the one mare who fought said archmage to a standstill with dark magic,” Razz pointed out. “At worst, we merely need to know our friends are in there and prevent them from being moved out before support arrives.”

Amber sighed. “Fine, you’re the boss—but you better bring them all back alive though!” With that, the batpony turned and silently took flight, heading in the direction of Nightshade.

Once Amber was out of earshot, Lockbox had to ask a pressing question. “So, what exactly is our plan here? The mine was deemed dangerous because it’s got pitch black, sudden drops and we’re goners if we step in sticky bug shit or they get the jump on us in there. And I need say nothing about unexpected cave-ins, subterranean monsters we hadn’t accounted for and all those other fun bits.”

Razz chuckled. “Oh, I have an idea alright, but it involves your brand of dark magic. What’s your limit on how much you can handle?”

Lockbox raised an eyebrow. “You’re asking me to use magic you already said was akin to being a traitor to the country?”

“I said that there are specific cases where that definition is lifted; me being the biggest example since I can’t do any other kinds of magic. Trust me, it’s a long story,” Razz assured her. “But as Archmage I’m giving you permission to use all of your power, for whatever you need me to tell you to do it.”

The blond unicorn sighed. “Well, if you insist. I can have several dozen chains going at once. Never tried more than a hundred because I know better than to push my luck even with my seemingly light immunity to the corruptive shit—”

“I thought so,” said Razz.

“Thought what?”

“A theory I had; I’ll tell you later. Anyway, please continue.”

“Uh, sure. Anyway, past fifteen or so feet away from me in a radius, controlling chains at that distance becomes much harder. So it’s either a lot of chains up to a medium distance away, but long distance it’s only a hoofful. I also need line of sight or have the location memorized, or else I’m blind to what the chains are doing or will encounter. They’re not sensory like antennae or anything.”

“Hmm, alright...but could you put them through a large tube you can’t see through, in order to reach a distance at the end where you can see them?”

“I will smack you if the next word you say involves used sewer pipes.”

“Nah, think more along the lines of wall insulation, actually.”

“Are you that unbelievably stupid?” Mandible screamed at Coco. “How can you be so unyieldingly dense?”

“Look, I’m sorry, okay?” Coco sobbed, wiping tears from her eyes. “If you don’t think it’s Miss Rarity and it’s not Miss Suri, then it has to be Mrs. Cardigan Sweater, right?”

“I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO THAT IS, YOU MORON!”

Meanwhile, in a separate wing of the reappropriated mine shaft, a few changelings stood guard in a boring vigil to ensure their three captive batponies wouldn’t try anything funny. Indeed, in addition to being bound with slime, the bugs had taken an additional precaution by putting the slime over the lower halves of their muscles so the batponies couldn’t annoy the shit out of them with constant screeching. The more efficient method would have been to encase them in cocoons in a kind of suspended animation and make guarding unnecessary, but cocoons were a chore to make for that purpose and Mandible was keeping her rebel hive ready to abandon their hideout at any moment—so the hostages needed to be kept easily moveable by extension.

One of the guard changelings suddenly emitted a growling sound from within.

“Damnit, I’m sick of underground mushroom stew for meals—I need some really filling love,” the drone audibly moaned.

“We all do, it’s just your fault you came out of that egg with a bottomless pit of a gut,” snarked another.

“Shut up.”

“Why? You got something more interesting to do?”

“Beating your head in sounds like a good idea.”

Your head? Yeah, I’m down with that.”

“Silence, you imbeciles!” said the third guard, evidently the one in charge from the extra armor he wore. “You will stay at your stations to ensure the hostages do not escape or get rescued!”

“But I’m so hungyyyyyyy…” the first drone sighed. Suddenly, he sniffed the air, head jolting upright from a slump. “Hey...you two feel that?”

“Yeah…” the second drone said. “That’s...that’s some Grade-A love right there! Faint though, so it must be close!”

“I’m calling bullshit,” the lead drone countered. “Any pony walking in here with that much love going on has a deathwish. Though if it’s legit...you two, follow me!”

The trapped batponies could only watch as their guards slunk off to investigate the sudden surge of love that only changelings could sense. Then, right after the three disappeared from view in the poor light conditions of the mine, brief sounds of a commotion were heard and silenced just as fast.

But to the delight of the batponies, a familiar green-and-gold figure then lit up, soaring over to land in front of Summer Daffodil. The trio tried to make happy-sounding muffled noises but the bird pantomimed a “shush!” gesture with his wing, while his mistress Raspberry emerged from the darkness without her normal guise. The effect of what looked to be a demon pony emerging from the pitch black nothingness of the caverns would have given the captives quite a shock if they hadn’t had inherently good vision in poor light conditions such as that.

“Thank the stars you three aren’t dead,” sighed Razz, using her magic to remove the slimy gags from the muzzles of the guards. “But where’s Lightfighter?”

“Look behind the pillar,” said Summer, and as Razz looked she was horrified to see that the Changelings had found the one non-batpony captive to be so annoying even when bound and gagged, that they’d actually gone to the trouble of putting her in a cocoon. Most likely as an example to make the batponies shut up. Razz hurriedly freed the batponies from their bindings before getting to work on freeing the trapped pegasus.

“What happened?” asked Meadowlark stretching his stiff wings after having them bound tightly for so long. “Last thing I recall is the mayor taking us to find where he said they’d found more survivors, and then next thing I know we’re trapped in this place!”

“Twin Peaks was working with these Changelings the whole time—something to do with trying to get to Coco. They’re still safe, so don’t worry; the changelings didn’t seem interested in them yet.”

“But who’s in charge back at Nightshade?” asked Sunshine, helping Summer to her hooves. “And I’m guessing you somehow lured our captors away with love...how?”

“I think Twilight got worried we hadn’t reported back yet and sent the freakin’ Super-Electric to town loaded with guards—the other Skyracer leading them. Twin Peaks has been deposed and Rainbow’s got the place under martial law—I’ll explain later. The love thing, though? Easy—Heliodor and I have the loving bond only a mare can share with her loyal companion.” Having then broken through the disgusting goop of the cocoon, Razz lifted the unconscious Lightfighter with her magic. “But it looks like Lightfighter really got sucked dry, even if she was awake I doubt she could get out of here on her own power. And unfortunately Coco is still in here somewhere and we have to get her out, too.”

“We’re not leaving you alone,” sternly said Summer.

“That’s why she’s not alone,” answered Lockbox, who emerged on some sort of platform made from chains like a thin, wide bulldozer tread. “Glad to see you’re all safe.”

“What took you so long?” said Razz.

“Ran into a few more changelings, had to deal with them,” shrugged the blacksmith. “But it looks like that pegasus needs a lift, so let’s get back to the surface and figure out our next move, since it looks like the hive hasn’t noticed we’re even here yet.”

“Has Amber’s message gotten through yet?”

“Amber?!” snorted Summer, who then recomposed. “Ugh, nevermind, you two unicorns seem to have things under control and we don’t have time for me to complain about that drunken mare. Let’s get to safety before going to rescue Poco-”

“Coco.”

“Whatever!”

“You are testing my patience!” Mandible roared at the smaller unicorn. “Do you have any idea of why you’re here?”

“No, unless….” A flash of inspiration came over her. “I got it! You kidnapped me because you need a dress for the Grand Galloping Gala—it’s not for another five months, but I know how hard it is to get a good dress that catches the eye. And I know I’m not Rarity, but I’m pretty sure I can come up with something that will suit your needs.”

“THAT IS IT!” screamed Mandible, slamming both hooves into the ground below hard enough to shake the earth and cause bits of dust to fall from the ceiling. “I’ve tried to be nice but how you managed to drive me into wasting far too much time on this nonsense ends here!”

Coco looked at her with utter confusion. “So I guess you don’t want a dress?”

Mandible growled in anger and frustration. “At the very least, I know enough now that I just have to be a complete moron to pretend I’m you and she’ll never know the difference!”

In a strange departure from character, Coco actually doubled down instead of wilting like a wallflower. “Nopony is going to believe you are me, you pretender of a queen. You have no idea what it takes to live my life or how well my friends know me!” She then spat as if mimicking some western film hero.

Only that seemed to placate Mandible somehow. “Well, all I had to do is make you show a little spine to confirm that theory, which means—”

“Means what exactly?” somepony who wasn’t Coco asked.

Mandible froze, her face slowly contorted into anger. She did not know this new voice, which meant somepony from that damn town had figured out the mines were her hive and gotten past any changelings they’d encountered thus far. But the space above Mandible’s head filling into a cylindrical dome of rainbow crystal took her by surprise.

“What in the—” she gasped, turning around and finding a mulberry-hued unicorn with a cool-hued mane looking rather pissed off. Her horn blazed with dark magic, something that completely shocked Mandible.

“So…” the queen seethed, lighting up her own magic. “You’re the special mare who has ruined all my plans here.”

“Well, I can’t take all the credit,” wistfully answered Razz, “but yeah, I’d say I’ve done the lion’s share of the work in undoing your scheme. Whatever the hell you’re up to, anyway. And now you’re going to give back my friend Coco or face some serious retribution.” Behind Razz then appeared the three batponies, looking like they were eager for the latter. Razz moved her attention to Coco, checking the trapped mare for injuries. “You okay?”

Coco shifted uncomfortably in her gooey bonds. “A little sticky, but nothing a nice long bath won’t fix!”

Satisfied that Coco was uninjured, Razz quickly scanned the rest of the room. There was still one more missing pony unaccounted for, and Razz didn’t see him.

“And where’s Lt. Skyracer?” she asked.

Mandible tilted her head before a cruel smile formed on her lips. “Oh, that moron? We picked him up well before any of this even began.”

Then with a burst of green flames, Mandible was replaced by the similarly smirking form of the first Skyracer they’d met in Nightshade. “Suffice it to say, there’s not much you or anyone can do for him now. He served his purpose nicely, keeping us fed for a while and giving me the means to infiltrate the local garrison here.” With another burst of green flame, Mandible returned to her true form. “I suppose he’s no good to anyone now, is he?”

Razz glowered hard at the smug changeling queen. Even if the real Skyracer had been as unpleasant as Mandible had portrayed him, he still didn’t deserve such a horrible fate. “You’re going to pay for everypony you hurt in Nightshade!”

“You foolish mare, even if you are the much-publicized blood descendant of King Sombra, your praise—such as it is—has only gone to your head! You don’t even understand the nature of the games I play, but continue to meddle with them. I will see to it you do nothing of the sort ever again!”

Coco, relieved at the sight of Razz and the guards but worried about what Mandible could potentially do, said nothing. However, her focus then caught four red long streaks visible on the other side of the crystal dome Razz had cast, like glowing red snakes making their way toward Coco’s end of the room. She didn’t like the imagery but in her mind she knew this was Razz’s doing and this was how she was going to rescue her.

“Oh, no,” retorted Razz. “There’s an even bigger picture you have no idea about. And you aren’t meddling with it because you can’t meddle in what I’m involved with...and who I call friends.”

“You talk big, almost as if you think you are even a fraction as terrifying as that monster Sombra was said to be. Given you ponies tend to be spineless four legged chickens—”

Scootaloo was busy doing homework back in Ponyville when she stopped, a strange feeling coming over her.

“I feel a disturbance in the magic,” she said, “as if millions of chickens cried out and were suddenly–-!”

“Scoots!” Sweetie Belle glared at her. “We’re supposed to study right now or we’re gonna flunk that test! Save the obscure quotes for later!”

Both then turned back to their homework giving the matter no more thought.

“—the moment they fear even getting a tiny bruise, but I must say you’re better than most. For that, I’ll give you one last chance to leave here alive with your bat buddies.”

Razz pondered that for a second. “Okay, deal,” she said enthusiastically, then turned and started walking off. The trio of batponies looked stunned, but with her back turned to Mandible, Razz gave the bats a wink to indicate she was not abandoning Coco whatsoever. Looking concerned to one another, the batponies could only follow Razz’s lead. For her part, Mandible appeared momentarily shocked that Raspberry was actually taking her up on her offer, before grinning a toothy grin.

“That’s right, maybe you do have some brain cells after all!” mocked Mandible, laughing maniacally. She’d just scared off a pony supposedly able to overpower the entire Alicorn Tetrarchy! Chrysalis didn’t stand a chanc—

What Mandible had failed to realize was the crystal canopy Razz had cast at the beginning of the confrontation was not, in fact, hugging the wall. She’d expertly left a three inch gap between the top of her structure and the actual mine roof, through which the hidden-from-view Lockbox had secretly threaded four of her chains to a length reaching the depth Coco was at. So when Razz shouted “GO!” Mandible only then realized all this as the crystal shattered, raining shards all over her and her minions. As they scurried to protect themselves from the sharp rain, the four chains all converged on Coco and wrapped themselves around her, the slime simply thrown off from the force. Then in sheer bad luck, Mandible looked up only to see Coco being pulled back to where Razz and friends were and got clocked in the face, dazing her even more.

“Sorry!” cried out an embarrassed Lockbox, manipulating her chains to deposit Coco with the reformed group of ponies. Then channeling more magic, she summoned even more chains and swirled them around to form a large disc atop which the group stood. With practiced coordination, the smithy then rotated the entire disc counterclockwise, like a drill and the pseudo-elevator made of chains clawed its way back up the shaft. Razz meanwhile was harkening back to the day she’d saved Heelee by ripping out the roof supports as the chain-platform raced back up to the surface, triggering a tunnel collapse and trapping the changelings within...

...except for the unfortunate Thorn and Thistle, who had gotten Thistle’s injury tended to and were on their way to rejoin their queen when from below they were blindsided by a rapidly spinning chain platform. Sunshine and Meadowlark immediately noticed the unwanted guests but as they couldn’t throw them off the deck, they instead delivered two quick punches to knock them out cold.

Heliodor was waiting patiently with the still unconscious Lightfighter when the group finally emerged from the tunnel, seconds before the old wood frame finally broke and was crushed under the weight of several tons of old rock and debris. He chirped happily upon seeing everypony was safe.

As did the two-hundred or so guards Skyracer had managed to bring to the top a minute before the group had emerged in a most unorthodox manner.

“Aw, sounds like we missed all the fun!” exclaimed Capt. Easychord. After the changelings were entombed in the mine and deemed no longer an immediate threat, now that —several hundred military personnel occupied the town and the heavily-armed naval airship flying in a circuitous pattern around the town, the captain had decided to let the crew have brief liberty status, herself included. Now she was chatting with Skyracer, Amber, and a worn-out Summer at the local bar.

“No, we haven’t had fun yet,” groaned Summer, “that’s until I’m drunk enough to forget spending a full day with foul-smelling slime literally under my nose and the worst wing cramps I’ve ever had!”

“You’re on duty,” reminded Skyracer.

“Yeah, which means I can’t get drunk, which means all that stuff I said earlier Celestia above do I look nearly as tired as I think I am?” She then looked to Skyracer and smiled impishly before jokingly leaning on him. “But I am just so glad the real you is here and not that fucking asshole changeling who somehow tried to impersonate you.”

“Yeah, about that….” Skyracer shook his head. “Captain, have the funeral arrangements been made?”

“I’ve sent a flamefax ahead to Ponyville. An honor guard will be on standby for Lt. Skyracer’s body.”

Amber’s eyes widened. “He was real?”

The Skyracer everypony was more familiar with nodded. “But he didn’t look a thing like me...unless I have a sky-blue coat and white and gold mane. They found his body in a cocoon near the hive’s central passageway, and from the looks of things, he’d been in there for six months and sucked dry to the point that he was mummified. He deserves a decent burial and to know that we got the changelings that killed him.”

“Well, no offense, but I’m glad he’s dead and not you!” Easychord chirped.

“Watch it, Chord,” Skyracer warned. Although his counterpart could be difficult to get along with sometimes, the other Skyracer wasn’t a bad stallion. At the very least, Skyracer was determined to give him the respect he’d earned in death.

“Hey, how do we know you aren’t a changeling?” Amber asked, suspiciously. “They did it before, they can do it again.”

Summer gave her a flat look. “Chrysalis or Mandible or whoever did this can go tell Princess Luna she has a fat rump.”

“Okay, I think you’re done here,” sighed Skyracer who got up and started to drag Summer from the bar.

“Hey, who do you think I am, Amber Shine? I can hold my liquor!” she whined as she began to see the growing distance between her and the bartender.

From across the street, while she hadn’t heard the commotion the military ponies were causing, Razz had caught a glimpse of it from the second story window of Lockbox’s home—conspicuously across the street from the town bar—before turning to resume her private conversation with her host. They were finally having the talk Raspberry had promised, but right now she didn’t care about Lockbox’s previous attempt on her life or the mare’s unauthorized use of dark magic. No, there was something far more important Raspberry had on her mind.

“So...you think I’m this, er, ‘Second Scion’ of Sombra, because I have a knack for dark magic?” asked Lockbox. She was sitting at a table with a cup of coffee, though little of it had been sipped. Razz couldn’t really blame her; after all they’d done over the past few days, learning your very being was touched by a monster of an ancestor was quite depressing news.

“I already told you the verse from the ‘prophecy’ for the Second Scion. Given your strong dark magic without any signs of corruption, I don’t know who else could be ‘the dark smithy’. All the clues fit.”

Lock was quiet for a few minutes, but then smiled. “Heh, I’ve always wanted to deny it, but I guess in the end my old family legend was true.” She looked up into Razz’s eyes. “Nightshade was founded by ponies who had fled Sombra’s army after his fall—my ancestors were among them. Scarlet Lace was the very first mayor of Nightshade, and the furthest back I can trace my heritage. She had a loving husband, but due to the timing of their first foal’s birth, local historians believe it wasn’t his. With a name like Nightshade, I suppose a dark tyrant’s legacy is a fitting secret to hold. As well as...the town’s mutual obligation to itself.”

“The what?”

Lock chuckled. “You don’t think I convinced the entire town to pull off a mass population nightmare night parade in less than a day for that stunt, did you? No, the truth is because the town was made up of so many refugees from Sombra’s forces, it made sense for them to be part of a town guard. I always thought it was superstition that said actual werewolves and the like came out from the populace when necessary, based on legend and in reality just a scare tactic. I didn’t even put it together that my dark magic was stronger than it should be normally: my whole family has carried the tradition of being the ‘masters of disguise’ by using dark magic to change the townsfolk—to ‘curse’ them without really cursing them.”

A melancholy look came over Lockbox then. “But does that mean we’re all damned? That we’re so used to existing alongside a corruptive force that we can’t stop from falling to the darkness?”

Razz shook her head. “I don’t think so. If anything, it’s because this town is full of ponies who share blood with those exposed to Sombra’s corruption that it’s almost unremarkable as to the true nature of our magic. You and I are proof that the power of dark magic can transcend generations by design...but this town is proof that the natural response of pony biology—to resist those effects—is also transcendent. It’s why I suspect the spell you use to make werewolves and zombies and even vamponies doesn’t have negative effects, because it’s a relatively weak strain of dark magic that these townsponies naturally have built up immunity to.

“However...the dark chains thing is an entirely different matter. I get the feeling that isn’t something your family has done for generations, is it?”

Lock shook her head. “No, it’s almost ironic how I learned that power. My special talent is working with metals. Figured that one out when I found a lost piece of guard armor in the woods and tried using a hammer to get the dents out—dad didn’t even care I broke the hammer and only got the thing half fixed. But the chains on my mark used to be silver, up until several years ago when I was superheating some metal to make some new axes for the lumber company. I somehow tripped and nearly landed in the hot coals, but when I opened my eyes I hadn’t even gotten close to falling in. Instead, I was laying on essentially a diagonal plane made from bright red and black chains. Since ponies around here are so used to seeing my horn with dark magic auras, they just kind of assumed I’d always been able to do that. If anything, the only time I became super self-conscious about it was when you showed up and I was stupid enough to let Peaks scare me into thinking you wanted my hide.”

“Lucky,” muttered Razz.

“Lucky?” repeated Lock.

“Oh crap. You, uh, weren’t supposed to hear that. But yeah, I said you were lucky. You have a family, the town accepted you, and your powers outright saved you from extreme bodily harm. Took me nearly ten years after my dark powers finally surfaced to get that. Ten years I’ll never get back.”

“Fuck, I...I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, it’s not your fault I got a really lousy start in life. What matters to me now is being able to use my ‘gift’ to help keep ponies safe and as pretentious as it is to be the ‘Archmagus of Dark Magic’ whose only long term interest is running a bed and breakfast, it’s a role I’m weirdly suited for. Heh, I’m even a minor princess in pretense and that doesn’t matter much to me.”

“And what about the whole ‘dark magic is treason’ thing?” worriedly reminded Lockbox. “I’ve already admitted my family has been doing it for generations and as you said, I must be this Second Scion.”

“I already gave you the right to be excluded from that,” Razz explained. “If you’d like a formal document, I’ll have Princess Twilight draw one up for you as soon as I return to Ponyville.”

“But that was just for the whole thing in the mines, wasn’t it?”

Razz shook her head. “Doesn’t have to be. Yes, technically you used it with cooperation of the town to attack me and my friends, but you were being manipulated. As far as I can tell, you only use your dark magic to protect other ponies and as we’ve covered, you understand your own limits of how much you can use without risking corruption. Plus you’re still capable with light and neutral magics which is more than I can say I can pull off thanks to my horn issues. Heck, if you were younger, I’d have recommended you to Princess Twilight as a student. Regardless, I see no reason to not make an exception, nepotism or not.”

Lock raised an eyebrow. “Nepotism?”

Razz laughed. “We’re both related to the same evil bastard, aren’t we? That makes us ridiculously distant cousins.”

“That’s the last of them, my queen,” Briar stated, rolling the false wall boulder back over the secret exit. From the moment Mandible had founded her rival hive in secret, with long term plans to overthrow Chrysalis, she’d had the emergency escape route built for cases when she and any minions lucky enough to be alive come what may needed to flee. A cave-in was also a much more likely scenario but not as self-glorification friendly when her legend would be retold.

Though the victors always rewrite history, she thought to herself with a cruel grin, so this little embarrassment could be undone given time.

“My queen, where are we to go?” said Briar, as he and the small group of surviving changelings looked to her for purpose in life. She surveyed her remaining forces, noting those dolts Thorn and Thistle were not among the group. At least their stupidity wouldn’t hinder her anymore, so that was a plus.

“We must find a new hive, of course—one more stable than a rotting hole in the ground such as this one had been. Perhaps the base of Smoky Mountain to the east will be more fitting for the long term. And where is Foxglove?”

“He...didn’t make it, my liege. I would say any changelings not present are either dead or captured, as such we should assume they are lost to our cause—if they are still alive then their loyalty will lead them to our new home.”

“Well, then I hereby make you my second-in-command, Briar—you’ve already shown more leadership potential than Foxglove ever did.”

“My thanks, my queen,” he said, bowing in gratitude. Then he turned to the remainder of the hive. “And as for you all, you have heard our queen, we shall make Smoky Mountain ours!”

With a cacophony of buzzing, the purple insect-equines immediately made haste to the east. But Briar did not as he felt his queen’s hoof on his wither.

“As my most trustworthy and loyal subordinate,” she said, “I can tell you are still bothered by something. You have my permission to speak your mind.”

“Yes, my liege. It is about the failure to prevent Coco Pommel from falling back into the hooves of the ponies. This completely undermines your plans, does it not?”

“You are quite correct,” Mandible told him. “What I intended to do originally is now no longer viable. However,” she smiled, “we know where that idiot is going, and she is easily tracked from afar. She will lead us right to where we need to be to become the dominant power among all Changelings, but for now we must rebuild my forces for when that day finally comes.

“And I may grow impatient and kill that stupid unicorn Raspberry Beryl before then, anyway. For I will not forget this humiliation at her hooves!”

The next day...

A petty officer from the Super-Electric approached Razz. “Archmagus, the Captain has asked me to let you know that we’ve stowed your gear onboard and the other Bearers and their guests are settled aboard. We’re ready to get underway as soon as you embark, ma’am.”

“Thank you; inform Captain Easychord I’ll be onboard shortly,” Razz told the petty officer, and she headed back, off to fulfill her duty.

Nearby, Sandalwood was saying her farewells to her cousin. “I’m so so sorry your visit turned out to be such a shitshow,” Amaretto said.

“Ammy, you apologized to me like ten times already,” Sandy said with a reassuring pat on the withers. “If you really want to make it up to me, just buy all my drinks the next time we go drinking!”

“Pfft, figures you’d use this to extort more drinks from me, ya damn alcoholic!” Amaretto said, and the two of them giggled. When their mirth subsided, Amaretto rubbed a foreleg self-consciously. “So, um… you’re really not bothered by the whole… werewolf thing?”

With another laugh, Sandalwood grabbed her cousin and pulled her into a tight hug. “We’re family, cuz. In my experience, a little lycanthropy never changes that.”

“Thanks, Sandy,” Amaretto said, giving her cousin one final squeeze.

“Besides,” Sandalwood said, pulling away, “now you and I can compare notes on the subject!”

“Yeah…” Amaretto said, before the full meaning of her cousin’s words sunk in. “Wait, what?!

But Sandalwood was already heading towards the airship ramp. “Bye, Ammy!”

“Wait, Sandy! You can’t just leave after dropping a bomb like that!

Meanwhile, Razz smiled at her friend’s antics before she turned back to the pony she’d been speaking to. “Well, looks like I gotta go back to my boring day job. Take care of yourself, okay, Locky?”

Lockbox smiled. “Hey, at least come and visit sometime, alright?”

“I’ll plan on it! You just keeping taking care of this place, okay?”

Nodding, Razz made her way up the gangplank, and the moment she was aboard, the seaponies began to remove the deck, and cast off the hawsers; a few minutes later the ship’s bell rang as the vessel got underway. Both Razz and Lockbox didn’t stop waving until they were long out of sight of each other.

“So…she’s your cousin now?” asked Sandalwood, who came up next to Razz. “Wouldn’t it be weird for us both to have a cousin who lives here?”

Distantly, yeah, it makes sense given how we’re certain of our relation by blood to King Sombra.”

“So you could get married to her, then?” Sandy leaned in close, batting her eyes and then making a kissy face.

“We only just really met, you wanna-be –Rarity-tier-romantic!” laughed Razz, pushing Sandy away playfully. “Besides, while relationships of that nature obviously aren’t something I even try to have, I don’t swing that way.”

“And the entire male population of Equestria sighs in relief, I’ll bet!”

“Says the mare who thought she was going to marry a sailor someday,” said Razz as she turned to walk back to the main coach where the rest of her friends were.

“Hey, I’m still young!” shot back Sandy. “I’m only in my twenties!”

Really?” said Coco, her eyes lighting up like balloons. “You mean it?!”

“But of course, darling!” affirmed Rarity. “I’ll talk to my friend about getting you your Bridleway job back—provided he hasn’t already found a replacement, you know how the industry is—after whatever this business you’ve been called upon to do for the princesses is taken care of, but until then I am in dire need of skilled hooves at my boutique and I even have a spare guest room I’m willing to let you use.”

“Oh, thank you!” exclaimed Coco, tackling the unicorn in a big hug. “I’ll be the best assistant ever!

“Yeah, wait until Spike gets a load of that,” snickered Rainbow.

“What, the competition in fawning over Rarity or actually being a helpful assistant?” asked Applejack. “Because Ah’ve seen him go crazy over tryin’ to be the latter for me back when Ah saved his life from timberwolves…almost made me wish Ah hadn’t.”

“Oh, I remember, didn’t he destroy Rarity’s plumbing as part of that?”

“At least he didn’t try to kill Opal,” laughed Razz, before turning to address the mildly annoyed bird. “Oh, come on, don’t act like destroying that feline isn’t one of your major goals in life.” Heelee raised a wing as if in response, then thought about it, and lowered it with an acknowledging nod that yes, Razz was right in that Opal would someday need to be eradicated from the face of the Earth. Someday.

As the airship receded into the distance, a mare watched it head off before she headed over to the train station and her own transportation. A half-hour later, the train departed Nightshade Station, and the mare who nopony had seen board it waited patiently in an otherwise empty coach, watching the small town disappear into the foothills of the border mountain ranges.

An hour passed.

Two.

The door at the far end of the coach opened then, a second mare walking through and closing it behind her.

“I trust they don’t suspect a thing?”

“No,” replied the second mare, morosely. “She managed to make it away from her captors, safe and sound.”

“Good. The sooner she is away from here, the less chance she will be suspected of anything in this...incident. Eventually, time will allay any fears.” The mare smiled. “Coco Pommel can now play her role in this little stage production we call life, and when her curtain bows, so will all of Equestria.”

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